Merchant & Gould Attorney Successfully Argues Kingsley v. Hendrickson before U.S. Supreme Court

June 26, 2015

The law firm of Merchant & Gould announced today that Wendy M. Ward, a partner in its Madison, Wisconsin, office, successfully argued an excessive force case before the United States Supreme Court in April on behalf of pro bono client Michael Kingsley.  

In its June 22 decision concerning the case of Kingsley v. Hendrickson, the Court held that the standard for evaluating a pretrial detainee’s excessive force claim under the Fourteenth Amendment is solely an “objective reasonableness” standard and that no subjective element needed to be proved. The decision has important ramifications for jail and police practice throughout the country and settles a circuit split in the matter.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in his majority opinion, stated that “the question before us is whether, to prove an excessive force claim, a pretrial detainee must show that the officers were subjectively aware that their use of force was reasonable, or only that the officers’ use of that force was objectively unreasonable.” The court concluded that the use of an objective standard is the correct one.

This case originated in the Western District of Wisconsin when the pro bono coordinator for the court asked Merchant & Gould whether it would be interested in taking on a pro-bono case. Merchant & Gould reviewed the various available cases, and decided to represent Mr. Kingsley pro bono in a case he had previously filed on his own.  It stems from an incident in the Monroe County, Wis. jail during transfer from one cell to another.  Mr. Kingsley alleged that the prison guards used excessive force against him during the cell transfer.

“Our office in Madison was contacted by the Western District Bar pro bono coordinator to inform us of several cases for which the Court had requested pro bono volunteers,” said Ward. “We selected the Kingsley case from among those cases because we had previously represented a prisoner in the Western District through this same process, and had successfully gone to trial, so we had some experience with excessive force claims. Mr. Kingsley lost in the district court, but we believed that the jury instructions were improper because they allowed the jurors to consider the subjective intent of the officers. We then appealed, but lost again in a close case, with one judge dissenting. After consultation, we decided to try and interest the Supreme Court in the case, because the various Circuit Courts of Appeal were split on this issue. We were very happy that the Supreme Court decided to take the Kingsley case. Arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court and achieving a successful outcome is certainly the highlight of my career to date.”

“Our Merchant & Gould team included more than 12 attorneys from across the firm, including members of the firm’s national appellate and litigation groups and its pro bono committee,” said Rachel C. Hughey, partner and current leader of the pro bono committee. “I watched firsthand the countless hours and dedication that the Kingsley v. Hendrickson team put into bringing this case to fruition. They acted as a well-oiled machine.”

Merchant & Gould is committed to community service through pro bono work. The firm is involved in all manner of pro bono work, with an active committee who vets requests from its eight offices across the country.